Claudette Colvin: The forgotten Rosa Parks..

Claudette Colvin is the civil rights revolutionary whose name you haven’t heard of, but you have to know!

In March 1955, 15 yr old Claudette refused to give up her bus seat for a white passenger. She was dragged off the bus and arrested.

But her actions that day sparked a movement that would end America’s bus segregation.

Sound familiar? That’s because it’s Rosa Parks story. Except it happened to Claudette 9 months earlier. And was then omitted from history.

newspaper clipping

claudette newspaper clipping.jpg
Newspaper headlines following Claduettes trial

On 2nd March 1955, Claudette was coming home from school in Montgomery, Alabama. A smart kid, with a rebellious streak, Claudette dreamed of being an attorney, or maybe the President of the United States. Hey, she dreamed big.

And it was just this that made Claudette stick out. She was proud of her darker skin, bucked the trend of straightening her hair, proudly wearing it natural, and she was passionate about growing up to be someone who’d shake shit up.

The other kids thought that Claudette was ‘nutty’ and she was ok with that.

Still though, growing up poor and black in Alabama, her dreams of a future as a civil rights fighter seemed a long way away. So she boarded the bus home, walked to the back and took a seat in the ‘coloured section’.

The back of the bus was a fact of life for Claudette. Segregation was law, it was in school, church, theatres. Hell, she’d not even been able to try on her shoes before buying, because she’d bought them from a ‘white’ store.

But a fire was starting to burn in Claudette.

3 years earlier, police had descended onto her school, when they arrested fellow student, Jeremiah Reeves.

The 16 year old black boy, was charged with raping a white woman. Jeremiah claimed innocence; that it was consensual. But it didn’t matter. Either way, it was an interracial relationship.

It took an all white jury less than half hour to find the teenager guilty and 6 years later he was executed.

Claudette watched Jeremiah’s arrest from her classroom window. She saw his countless fruitless legal appeals. Martin Luther King Jr, Rosa Parks and the whole NCAPP, fighting for his freedom, that never came.

So when Claudette sat in her seat that day in 1955 and refused to get up, she was thinking about Jeremiah.

She was thinking about how she’d never experienced what it was like to be an equal. How her life was seen as less. And how, she’d paid for her seat on that damn bus and she didn’t have to move if she didn’t want to!

The bus driver threatened to call the cops, unless Claudette moved for the white woman.

Claudette didn’t move.

In a rare later interview, she said:

‘History had me glued to the seat. Harriet Tubman’s hands were pushing down on one shoulder and Sojourner Truth’s hand were pushing down on the other shoulder. I was paralysed between these two women, I couldn’t move.’

The white students on the bus turned on Claudette. Shouting, ordering her to get up. One of the black students shot back:

‘Well she don’t have to do nothing but stay black and die.’

When police boarded the bus, Claudette argued that she had paid her fare. Her right to her seat was her:

‘Constitutional right’

They didn’t care.

The police. dragged the 11th grader off the bus. She was beaten and arrested. Then the teen was taken, frightened and alone, to the city jail.

Later that night, Claudette was bailed out. She’d been charged with disorderly conduct, which meant she’d violated segregation laws and she was also booked for assault and battery (thanks to a small scratch an officer obtained whilst dragging Claudette off the bus)
Claduette Colvin
2 weeks later and Claudette’s dreams of a  bright future were pretty much over.

Her arrest was splashed across the papers, with some members of her community effectively disowning her as word of her actions spread.

And though 2 of Claudette’s charges had been dropped, the ‘assault and battery’ charge was upheld. This was a serious charge she’d have permanently on her record.

And then there was the fear. Claudette’s father staying up all night with a shotgun close at hand, just in case the KKK should target the family for Claudettes actions, attacking them in their home.

Claudette had no idea what was going to happen next, but if her current situation was a sign… it probably wasn’t going to be good.

And that’s when Rosa Parks entered Claudette’s life.
rosa parks

Rosa Parks was the secretary of the local Montgomery chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NAACP). She’d already spent decades as a activist, boots on the ground, helping in unjust court cases, organising the local civil rights movement and helping black teens who found themselves entangled in a whole heap of trouble, just like Claudette.

Two weeks after Claudette made her stand on the bus, Rosa got in contact. She invited Claudette to come and tell her story to a local youth group that Rosa ran. She did and soon enough, Claudette was secretary of that group.

Rosa Parks would spark conversations with the kids, discussing the discrimination that ran rampant in Montgomery and what they could do about it.

When it felt like Claudettes life was over, Rosa Parks was there. Making her peanut butter on crackers and delivering much needed letters of support.

And then everything changed….

Claudette fell pregnant. 

Portrait of Claudette Colvin by Robert Shetterly
Portrait of Claudette Colvin by Robert Shetterly

There was a revolution brewing in Montgomery. The chance to stand up, take this injustice to court and finally end bus segregation. It was a revolution that had been sparked by Claudette. But she would not be its poster child.

Whoever fronted this thing would have to be spotless, someone the white press couldn’t tear down with ease. A black, unwed teen mother, was thought not to fit the bill. 

Philip Hoose who later wrote a book about Claudette further explained the decision: “They worried they couldn’t win with her…Words like ‘mouthy,’ ‘emotional’ and ‘feisty’ were used to describe her.”

Another teen was briefly considered as a candidate from which to build a monumental lawsuit, that could end bus segregation. Mary Louise Smith, had refused to give up her seat. just a few months after Claudette’s stand. However following unsavoury rumours about her family, she too was turned down.

And so, on December 1st 1955, when Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a Montgomery bus and was arrested, the revolution was built around her. 

Rosa Parks Booking Image
Rosa Parks booking photo

Rosa Parks arrest led to the Montgomery bus boycott, which in turn led to the historic, Browder v. Gayle case, which ended bus segregation in Montgomery and Alabama.

For this trial, Claudette Colvin was a key witness. However much like her stand on the bus, history has not remembered this. In fact the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History, referred to Claudette as a ‘test case’ before Rosa Parks true stand.

There were a myriad of reasons that Claudette was erased from history, but perhaps the most heartbreaking, was this advice given by her mother: 

“My mother told me to be quiet about what I did. Let Rosa be the one. White people aren’t going to bother Rosa — her skin is lighter than yours and they like her. ”

And yet, despite it all, Claudette isn’t bitter.

She moved on and learnt to accept the fact that it wasn’t her name that went down in history. She went on to have another son, eventually settling in New York, where Claudette helped organise the union 1199 (The National Health Care Workers’ Union, once described by Martin Luther King Jr as his favourite union) 

It’s only in the last few years that Claudette Colvin has started to have her story heard and true to herself, the first thing Claudette wanted to know when she found out a book was being a written about her, was if it would be in schools.

This was interesting, where can I find out more? I’d suggest checking out Phillip Hoose’s book, Twice Toward Justice, its written for a younger audience, but it was the first book that started to get Claduettes story out to a modern audience. 

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